Local Chinese authorities’ decision to award 800,000 yuan (130,000 US dollars) to China's tennis superstar Li Na has cast a cloud over the athlete’s homecoming shortly after her stunning triumph at the Australian Open.
The prize money was quickly captured in news headlines in China, generating a wave of mockery and criticism directed at local officials, whose move appeared to be at odds with President Xi Jinping’s pledge to fight extravagance and cut back on government spending.
Li’s second Grand Slam Title came with 2.4 million US dollars worth of the reward, and given her endorsement deals with brands at home and abroad, she is arguably the highest paid female athlete in China.
In local TV footage, the poker-faced Li was shown posing for pictures with a local government official. The two held a red board in which the amount of the prize money was printed. According to Chinese individual income tax law, the 800,000 yuan prize money awarded to Li is tax-free.
Li’s brief meeting with local provincial officials at the airport of Wuhan, where she is from, was largely symbolic. The 31-year-old athlete remained silent during the welcoming ceremony, state-run Xinhua news agency reported.
Li Na quickly rose to prominence after winning the 2010 French Open and since then has remained a beloved figure in China for her lighted-hearted personality. She now has some 22 million followers on China's most popular microblogging Sina Weibo.
Many netizens in China questioned local authorities’ decision over the reward money:
Zhongguo Weishengwu from Jiangsu wrote:
Li Hongzhong gave Li Na 800,000 yuan on behalf of the provincial government. If the money was from the leader himself, it was nothing debatable, but if the money came from taxpayers, who gives you authority to do so? The work of Li Na is essentially commercial sports, and for her team and her family, she has to fight in the battlefield. How was her championship connected with you? And where were you when she went solo? Where were you when she had no money for her knee surgery? Where were you?!
A prominent sports commentator Huang Jianxiang commented：
Hubei government's decision to award 800,000 yuan to Li Na wouldn't have created so much criticism 20 years ago. This is the progress of the society. However, the mindset of the officials pretty much stagnated as in the past: Each good personalities and good deeds have to be linked to the government, and government officials have to come out to send their greetings and congrats. In fact, in certain areas, the less government inquiry the better, let the market have the say, which will be much more beneficial to the country and the public than bothering the mayors, it's particularly true in terms of sports industry.
Does Li Na really need the 800,000 yuan? Why do [officials] use money to express everything? Where was this 800,000 from? It was our common people's money, was it for show by the government?
China News Service, a semi-official newswire, offered rare criticism:
It does not make much sense that the local government uses public finance to award a professional athlete. First, the government should strictly make and implement its budget, is there such a budget for 800,000 yuan as award money? Second, the spending of public finance must be conducted in accordance with public principles, namely, they must be spent for public service, a professional athlete's championship, how is that related to public interest?